MIT Was ‘Neutral’ In Aaron Swartz Case

Internet activist’s former parter labels the report a “whitewash”

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has released the review of its part in the prosecution of the late Aaron Swartz, claiming it took a hands-off approach.

Swartz was facing 13 charges, up to 35 years in jail and $1 million in fines for siphoning off JSTOR documents, using a setup within MIT. He committed suicide earlier this year and, according to family, friends and colleagues, he was under intense pressure from both law enforcement and the Institute.

Aaron Swartz photo by Sage Ross via WikipediaBut according to the review, ordered following the outcry over Swartz’s death, MIT never requested for Swartz to be prosecuted and remained “neutral, with limited involvement”, the report claimed.

MIT ‘neutral’

“MIT took the position that US v. Swartz was simply a lawsuit to which it was not party, although it did inform the US Attorney’s Office that the prosecution should not be under the impression that MIT wanted jailtime for Aaron Swartz,” read the report.

It said MIT did not know Swartz was a suspect until his arrest in early 2011, indicating “MIT did not focus on Aaron Swartz at any time during its own investigation of the events that led to his arrest, and that MIT did not intentionally ‘call in the feds’ to take over the investigation”.

It noted, however, that whilst MIT’s position may have been “prudent”, it did not take into account the legal background on which the case against Swartz was built, namely the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, described in the report as “poorly drafted and questionable”. MIT people have traditionally been passionate leaders in this field, the report noted.

MIT president Leo Rafael Reif said he was confident the institution’s decisions were “reasonable, appropriate and made in good faith”.

“The report also sets the record straight by dispelling widely circulated myths. For example, it makes clear that MIT did not ‘target’ Aaron Swartz, we did not seek federal prosecution, punishment or jail time, and we did not oppose a plea bargain,” he wrote.

But Swartz’s partner at the time of his death, Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, has slammed the report, labelling it a “whitewash”.

“MIT’s lawyers gave prosecutors total access to witnesses and evidence, while refusing access to Aaron’s lawyers to the exact same witnesses and evidence. That’s not neutral,” Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman said in an online statement.

“ The fact is that all MIT had to do was say publicly, ‘We don’t want this prosecution to go forward’ – and Steve Heymann and Carmen Ortiz would have had no case.

“We have an institution to contrast MIT with – JSTOR, who came out immediately and publicly against the prosecution. Aaron would be alive today if MIT had acted as JSTOR did. MIT had a moral imperative to do so.”

Earlier this month, lawyers representing MIT filed a motion to intervene in an FoI request by Wired journalist Kevin Poulsen, trying to keep private thousands of pages of Secret Service documents related to the late activist. The Institute claimed it was afraid the release of these documents would identify the names of MIT people who helped prosecution, putting them in danger.

Swartz was a co-founder of Reddit and one of the leading lights in the fight for Internet freedoms.

What do you know about Internet security? Find out with our quiz!